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Yomitan airfield to be returned to families of original owners

The former runway of the Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield is now a village road. In July, 346 acres of the 471-acre site will be returned. In the background is the village office complex and community center, built in 1997.

DAVID ALLEN / S&S

By DAVID ALLEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 29, 2006

YOMITAN, Okinawa — Most of the old Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield is slated to be returned to individual owners in July.

The Japanese government recently announced that 346 acres of the 471-acre site, including the 2,000-meter-long runway now used as a village road, will be formally returned to families of the original landowners. The Japanese government appropriated the property in the 1940s for use as a military airfield.

After World War II, it was used as a U.S. air base until 1953, at the end of the Korean War. The U.S. Army Special Forces then used it as a parachute-training site.

As such, it was a frequent symbol for anti-base protests, especially after a trailer dropped during an exercise crushed an elementary school pupil to death in 1965.

The airfield is next to the Navy’s Sobe Communication Site, known locally as the Elephant Cage, which is to be replaced by a new facility being built on Camp Hansen.

The U.S.-Japan Joint Committee agreed on the July return date on May 18, said a spokesman for the Defense Facilities Administration Naha Bureau.

Following piecemeal 1977-1987 returns of portions of the airfield, both governments agreed in 1995 on joint use of the remaining acres, letting Yomitan village build a new office complex, community hall and sports park.

In 1996, parachute drop training was moved to the nearby island of Ie Shima and both national governments agreed to move the antenna complex and associated support facilities of the Sobe Communication Site to Camp Hansen.

Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield now “serves as a radio-waves buffer zone for the Sobe Communication Site,” said the Defense Administration spokesman. “The rest of the land will be returned when the Sobe Communication Site is closed.”

The Japanese government owns all but 59 acres of the land to be returned. The rest is owned by 229 individuals, who together have received about 162 million yen ($1.4 million) yearly in lease payments. Yomitan village plans to buy the national land and maintain it as a vast communal farm, said Masanobu Yara, Yomitan Military Landowners’ Association chairman.

“Our village has prepared for a long time to utilize the nationally owned land as farmland,” he said. Using a small portion of land returned years ago, the village opened a subtropical agricultural research institute, he said.

“The vast land to be returned sits in the middle of the village, with no way for us to use it for a long time,” he said. “The return is joy for everybody in our village.”

Except, perhaps, for the 229 residents who own the smaller portion to be returned. They had been able to farm their properties while continuing to be paid rent by the government.

“To be honest, they all wanted their land to continue to be used by the military,” Yara said. “The rent money was much more secure and reliable.”


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